Does my coworker have Alzheimer's?

Dear Alice,

How do you detect Alzheimer's disease in a person? Our co-worker seems to be more forgetful than usual lately.

Constant Reminder

Dear Constant Reminder,

There are many possible causes for your co-worker's forgetfulness. For example, stress is commonly linked to memory problems. Has your colleague been under an abnormal amount of stress recently? Could they be stressed about something you don't know about? Lack of sleep is also an extremely common reason for forgetfulness, so if your co-worker is experiencing any major life changes or interruptions to their sleep schedule, this could be at the root of the problem. Other potential causes include the side effects of many medications, alcohol or drug abuse, depression, anxiety, grief, pregnancy, perimenopause, strokes, and brain tumors.

If none of these scenarios apply to your co-worker, Alzheimer's could be a possibility, although certainly not one you would want to jump to immediately or without substantial evidence. Since you asked specifically about Alzheimer's, here is some information on the disease that can help you understand it better and perhaps give you some insight as to whether it is something to be concerned about in your co-worker:

A person's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease increases with age, and is most often seen in people over 60. In fact, some studies show that more than 14 percent of people over 65 years of age have Alzheimer's. That number jumps to over 40 percent in people who are over 80. Moreover, for no known reason, females, rather than males are at higher risk of developing the condition.

Alzheimer's disease is commonly referred to as a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain. It worsens over time as the disease damages more brain tissue. The leading cause of dementia, it disrupts a person's cognitive and social abilities, compromising his/her ability to manage even daily activities.

While treatments for Alzheimer's are available, they cannot stop or reverse the disease. They can, however, slow the progress of its symptoms. Detecting Alzheimer's disease early is difficult, and a definitive diagnosis can only be made from sampling brain tissues, usually during an autopsy. Therefore, health care providers often give a diagnosis of "possible" or "probable" Alzheimer's. You can look out for early symptoms of Alzheimer's by paying attention for the following symptoms:

  • Forgetting familiar people or things, rather than merely forgetting a name
  • Remembering recent events
  • Doing simple math (e.g., calculating the tip at a restaurant)
  • Finding the right word to describe something familiar
  • Performing familiar tasks

With time, symptoms increase in frequency and interfere more and more with a person's independence, judgment, and ability to communicate, travel, think clearly, or solve problems. At its worst, people with Alzheimer's disease experience the following: 

  • Complete loss of short- and long-term memory, sometimes even being unable to recognize close friends and relatives 
  • Complete dependence on others for daily activities
  • Personality changes (anxiety, aggression, and inappropriate behavior)
  • Inability to move or walk

Health care providers diagnose possible or probable Alzheimer's with a medical history, some blood or urine tests, cognitive (neuropsychological) tests, or brain scans (e.g., MRI and CT scans).

Whatever the cause of your co-worker's forgetfulness, you may want to speak directly with him/her about your concern. Rather than jumping directly to Alzheimer's, you can ask if your co-worker is doing OK, if they are experiencing stressful events, or has noticed any memory problems. Express your concern for their health and your willingness to provide support. Remember, there are many potential causes of memory loss; sincere concern, rather than an attempt at a diagnosis, will likely be better received by your co-worker.

Last updated May 20, 2015
Originally published Feb 01, 1994